- Tell children the truth — Euphemisms like a pet is lost or passed away may seem kinder than the truth that a pet has died, but typically only confuse children more.
- Share your own grief — Grieving is a natural part of life and can be shared as a family. It looks different for everyone, especially kids who tend to grieve in spurts.
- Include your child when memorializing a pet — Children can and should be involved in saying goodbye to a beloved pet.
Pet lovers who have coped with the death of a beloved pet appreciate that grief can be challenging. Parents of young children face an additional challenge: they may wonder what and how much to tell their child about the death of a pet. Here are some general guidelines that may be helpful to parents in this sad situation.
What to say to a child who lost a pet
First and foremost, tell your child the truth. Take time to talk to them and share simple, factual information. Use the words “dead” or “died” to say what happened. While it may feel uncomfortable for you at first, do not try to skirt the issue by saying your pet ran away. You do not want children to discover their pet died by overhearing a whispered conversation. Be upfront and honest.
Avoid using euphemisms such as “We lost Sparky” to mean your pet died. Be direct so you don’t create confusion. To a child, “lost” has a different meaning than death. You do not want your child to believe that their pet will be found. Likewise, “passed away” or “passed over the rainbow bridge” can seem mysterious and cause a child to wonder what happened.
Even at a young age, children can understand simple and developmentally appropriate language. You might say, “Sparky’s body is no longer working. He is dead, which means he cannot run, jump, eat, or bark anymore.” Being direct and honest will help your child trust you. You will gain credibility, and it will help them begin to understand the cycle of life and death. Use your conversations as teaching moments. Grief is natural and should be discussed as a normal part of life.
When to explain a pet’s death
If your pet is sick and exhibiting signs they are dying, explain things to your child ahead of your pet’s death. Letting your child know what to expect can give them time to ask questions and begin to process their feelings sooner rather than after the shock of what seems like a sudden death. Children also have the opportunity to say goodbye to their cherished friends. Allowing them to say goodbye and be a part of the process shows you respect the relationship and know how important it is to the child. Just as we want the opportunity to tell our pets how much they mean to us, children have the same need.
Questions you can expect
Your child may or may not ask questions as you talk with them. Some children will be satisfied by the amount of information you share, while others will want more details. Do your best to answer their questions simply and honestly. Stick to the facts, keeping your explanations short and to the point. Instead of asking if they understand, ask, “Did I explain that well?” This allows them to let you know if there’s anything they would like to discuss more.
Children process information a little bit at a time. This means they may need several conversations with you about the death. They might ask additional questions or they may ask the same question over and over. It does take patience, but these conversations will help them deal with what has happened. Eventually, their curiosity will be satisfied.
If your child asks questions you don’t have an answer for, be honest. You don’t have to be a grief expert. You can always take the time later to look for a library book or an online article to help you answer their questions.
Process grief as a family
Don’t be afraid to talk about how sad you are and how much you miss your much-loved pet. Showing your child a healthy grief response is one way they will learn to grieve. Be factual and express your feelings verbally. For example, you might say, “Mommy is crying because I loved Sparky, and I’m sad he has died. He was very special to me. I’ll be OK, but right now, I miss him a lot, and it helps me to cry.” Explaining your tears while telling them you’ll be OK assures them that crying is a normal part of grief.
Faces of grief
Just because you all loved the same pet does not mean you have the same feelings of grief. Each person’s relationship with the pet is unique, so their reaction to the death may vary. Honor those distinctions and be aware that children may process their feelings differently. Children tend to grieve in short spurts, inconsolable one moment and off playing and laughing the next. It does not mean they’re uncaring; it is just how they deal with feelings.
Let your child express their feelings — cry, be sad, share memories, etc. without trying to cheer them up. It’s OK for them (and you) to be melancholy. It’s often been said that “The only way through grief is through it.” This means that to grieve, you have to allow yourself to mourn. This is true for children, too, even if their grief looks different than yours. We often try to get a child to stop crying because it makes us uncomfortable or we feel bad for them. Keep this in mind and go against that instinct. Instead, support them by letting them show their feelings.
👉It is subtle, but when discussing your deceased pet, use the past tense. “I loved it when Sparky would carry his old blanket around when he was tired.” Shifting to the past tense when speaking about them makes it clear they’re not coming back.
Memorialize your pet
Finding a way to memorialize your pet allows you to talk about your feelings in a non-threatening way while doing something tangible. Looking back at photos, reflecting on favorite memories, and sharing your feelings with your child can benefit you both. Your child may want to draw or write a poem, as these actions can help them process their feelings. You can make a photo book that specifically belongs to your child or let them choose to keep one of your pet’s toys.
Including them in your family’s goodbye will show them you respect their feelings and understand the loss of a pet affects them. Taking time to memorialize your pet will indicate how important the pet was to you, and it will show your child you believe your pet is still worthy of being talked about and loved, even in death.
One member of the betterpet team buried the cremated remains of their adored family dog under a dogwood tree in their backyard. Every year when the tree blooms, it’s a visible reminder of the happy times the family shared with their dog. Find something that connects with your family to plan a tribute together.
When to add a new pet
Many pet lovers don’t want to go too long without having a pet in their lives. While a new pet may be in your future, getting one too soon can also cause issues. Be sure that you have taken the time to grieve for the pet who has died and that you have the time and energy to devote to a new relationship.
If you get a pet too soon, you may resent the new pet because you haven’t had time to grieve the pet that died. It can be hard not to compare the new pet to your previous pet. Consider other household pets and how they will react to the addition of a new companion.
As you contemplate bringing home a new pet, include all family members in the decision. Don’t rush your decision or your grief. Give your bereavement the space and honor it deserves. Let your family work through all the feelings of sadness before you bring home another pet. Once you’ve reached a place where you’re emotionally ready to invest in another loving, companionable relationship, your child will have learned about honoring past relationships, sharing feelings of loss, and gaining support, all of which add up to a healthy grieving process.
Frequently asked questions
How do I help my child get over the death of a pet?
Acknowledge their feelings, answer their questions, and provide simple, honest information. Getting over the death of a pet takes time for children just as it does for grownups, but teaching healthy grieving now will make them more resilient adults.
Should you let your child say goodbye to a pet?
Yes. Allowing children to say farewell to a beloved pet helps to lessen the shock, shows them you respect your relationship with their pet, and allows them to tell their pet what they mean to them. We want to shelter children from such painful experiences, but saying goodbye allows them to express their emotions and ask questions.
What are the mental health effects of pet death during childhood?
A study from researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital found that the death of a pet can have a profound impact on children, but the benefits of pets are great, too. Pets help develop non-verbal communication, compassion, and empathy, according to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Their care can teach responsibility, a connection to nature, and respect for other living things.